Sri Lanka's War On Several Fronts

Sri Lanka's separatist Tamil rebels, facing likely defeat on the battlefield, sent a letter to the United Nations on Monday saying they were ready for a cease-fire. The government immediately rejected the offer. Video by AP
By Emily Wax
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 22, 2009

VAVUNIYA, Sri Lanka -- Sandya Kanthi and her husband were once rice farmers. They tended paddies among the lush coconut groves and banana palms just outside this town. Now they are warriors, rifles in hand and neatly pressed khaki uniforms on their backs.

They are among an estimated 45,000 largely Sinhalese villagers who have joined what is known here as the Civil Defense Forces, Sri Lanka's version of the National Guard, a paramilitary civilian group whose job is to defend villages, often in areas that have been attacked by ethnic Tamil separatist rebels in Asia's longest-running insurgency. After a few weeks of weapons training, the villagers are given uniforms, guns and a monthly salary of about $140.

"We know our roads. We know the jungle. And we are the most successful when it comes to saving our villages," said Kanthi, 36, wearing a uniform top over her skirt, a rifle slung across her chest. The mother of two is among 400 civilians in Periyaulukkulama, 15 miles west of Vavuniya, some of whom joined forces after their village was attacked on the Sinhalese New Year in April 2007, reportedly by rebels, who killed four female civilian officers. "We want to save our motherland and fight the terrorists," Kanthi added. "We also know the war will end soon."

The increased arming of civilians in rural areas illustrates how Sri Lanka's government has been able to push the separatist Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam, or LTTE, to the brink of defeat after more than a quarter-century of sporadic fighting, cease-fires and failed negotiations. The group has been fighting for a separate Tamil homeland in the north of this Indian Ocean island since the 1980s, but in the past few months it has lost more than 2,160 square miles of territory, including its main lair in Kilinochchi. It now controls a 34-square-mile patch of jungle.

"At a time when other insurgencies seem to be growing -- especially in neighboring Afghanistan and Pakistan -- Sri Lanka has made stunning gains," said retired Lt. Gen. A.S. Kalkat, who commanded an Indian peacekeeping force in Sri Lanka nearly 20 years ago. "Though they have suffered heavy casualties, what they have done, at least in the short term, is a major victory."

But as an end appears to be drawing near, the Tigers continue to practice their brazen, often innovative warfare, including an air raid on the capital Friday night -- a flashy show of power that left at least three people dead and 48 wounded. The Tigers invented the suicide jacket, a bomb-laden vest, and the ongoing suicide and guerrilla attacks will persist in Sri Lanka until the Tamil minority is fully participating in society, analysts and diplomats said.

Still, the Sri Lankan government is winning the conventional war, according to military and political analysts, who note that officials took several hard-line steps: They marshaled public opinion to their cause by painting the conflict as a war against terrorism; courted China for weapons without restrictions on their use; and skirted dissent by journalists, aid workers and civil society groups whose public scrutiny of the government and its war efforts was denounced as treasonous, human rights groups have charged.

"In a post-9/11 scenario, 'terrorist' became a very dirty word. The government suddenly had an advantage in the international arena in fighting the Tamil Tigers, an organization that the FBI called 'the most ruthless and efficient terror organization in the world,' " said Kusal Perera, head of an independent news Web site, "The world scenario changed in favor of the government."

The government of President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who came to power in 2005 amid a wave of Sinhalese nationalism, has had a free hand to crush the separatists, diplomats here said. The majority of Sri Lankans were apparently fed up with the war that has killed at least 70,000 people and seemed willing to give the new president any powers necessary to bring about its end.

In just two years, the country enlarged its military by 40 percent, adding as many as 7,000 recruits a month. Officials sent text messages to youths and put patriotic pop hits on the radio. Sri Lanka's military now has about 300,000 troops, military officials said.

The country's defense minister, Gotabhaya Rajapaksa, a brother of the president who once lived in California, is seen as the main architect of the government's new strategy.

"We gave clear instructions: no cease-fires, no negotiations until we defeat the LTTE completely," he said in an interview. "The LTTE would use cease-fires and peace talks to reorganize and resupply weapons. There have been five presidents, eight governments, different political parties and different personalities, dozens of negotiations and more than 10 cease-fires. Everything failed. After every period of negotiation, they came back stronger. We decided enough was enough."

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